Monday, January 21, 2013

The Heresy of Racism

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction... But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel...”

                 - Apostle Paul, Galatians 2:11-14

The first big church fight wasn't about the doctrine of the Trinity or how to describe the person of Jesus. Those would come later. The first big argument was about racism. 

The major ethnic/racial categories in the New Testament are "Jew" and "Gentile" (i.e., all non-Jews). Paul's gospel message was that in Christ, God had broken down the dividing wall separating these two ethnic groups (Eph. 2:14). Universal human sinfulness and universal divine grace place us all on equal footing before God (Rom. 3:21-26). 

Most first century Jewish Christians would have had an issue with this, and understandably so. After all, they were "chosen." They were set apart from the rest of the nations as the special locus of God's redemptive work. They were given special laws to show their "set-apartness" to the rest of the world, things like circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary regulations. 

So Paul, a first century Jew who had his life rearranged by Jesus, comes along and says that these things no longer matter for one's identity as part of the people of God. He says that faith in Christ, not one's ethnic status, ultimately determines one's relationship with God. 

This was a very unpopular and highly controversial message for his fellow Jews, even for those Jews who had become followers of Christ. Peter, for example, even though he had a supernatural vision of God's universal embrace (see Acts 10), fell back into his old pattern of spirituality that made a strong divide between Jews and other ethnic groups. Old habits are hard to kick. 

Paul's response was to get in Peter's face and tell him that he was wrong. For Paul, this was not a side issue. This was not an optional feature of Christian discipleship. This was not something that Christians could agree to disagree on. 

For Paul, to act in a racist way- to assume that one's ethnic heritage and status somehow gives you a privileged place in the world- is to "not act consistently with the truth of the gospel." Confronting and combating racism, according to the New Testament, is absolutely central to living in a way that goes with the grain of the good news of Jesus. To fail to do so is heresy.

Ironically, while many Christians have used the Bible to justify their racism, the apostle Paul was willing to set aside the continuing relevance of major portions of the Bible in order to oppose racism. His experience with the Gentile's experience of God lead him to reinterpret the significance and application of major sections of the law concerning circumcision and dietary regulations, which were seen as absolutely foundational to the identity of the people of God at that time. 

There is no question that Paul, in reference to his time and place, was an enormous liberal who was willing to rethink the bedrock foundations of his religious heritage because of his experience of Jesus and his love. Paul's opponents certainly had scriptures on their side that seemed to strongly indicate that if a person is to become part of the people of God, they must adopt the Jewish ethnic identity markers first (e.g., Gen. 17:9-14). But Paul was so convinced of human equality in Christ (Gal. 3:28) that he used that as his reference point and interpreted everything in the light of that affirmation. 

Paul thought it would be heretical, in his day and time, to continue to apply those biblical commandments that reinforced a sense of privileged ethnic status. 

He boldly and uncompromisingly read the Bible through the lenses of Christ's boundary-shattering love and grace. 

So, when Paul asks us to be imitators of him (1 Cor. 4:16), I say we do it. 


  1. You misunderstand racism. The definition you are using is facile and overly simplistic. It depicts prejudice against a group with power as equivalent to prejudice against a group without power. It says that a minority group denying anything to a majority group is equivalent to all the discriminations and bigotries that the minority group faces. Your definition of racism actively aids and abets actual racism.

    Civil rights activists define racism as prejudice plus power. A privileged group that carries prejudice against a disprivileged group can do huge amounts of damage to them. A disprivileged group can just about manage to upset people in a privileged group.

    Jews were (and are) a persecuted minority at the time. Christian Jews' reluctance to allow the majority access to their culture was not racism, it was an attempt to preserve their culture in the face of a world that wanted to wipe it out.

    I don't have anything to say about the theology of this. I'm a pagan. I don't care. But your framing of this as an issue of racism is factually inaccurate and damaging to struggles against real racism.

  2. "Civil rights activists define racism as prejudice plus power." That's a very convenient definition for evading any responsibility to examine one's own character.

  3. "That's a very convenient definition for evading any responsibility to examine one's own character."

    I for one care less about character and more about justice. Prejudice backed by power tears justice up by the root - prejudice without power isn't even slightly comparable.

    Which isn't to say we shouldn't worry about character. Obviously we should. But let's not put character flaws on the same level as societal flaws, because that's just stupid.